Nearly eight months after contract negotiations began, the South-Western City School Board of Education and the South-Western Education Association (SWEA) have reached an agreement.
The board held a special meeting on Dec. 17 and approved a new contract for over 1,400 certified staff employees, including teachers, guidance counselors, nurses, psychologists and tutors. SWEA members voted to accept the settlement on Dec. 14, though only 67 percent voted in favor of it while 33 percent voted against it.
The two-year contract agreement, valid from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2009, includes a 2.5 percent pay increase in the base salary in the first year and 2 percent raise in the second year. After months of no headway between the groups, both parties agreed to bring a federal mediator back into the picture. September was the last time the parties met with a federal mediator, who then determined no further progress could be made. The mediator was called in for a meeting on Dec. 6.
"I am very pleased we have reached an agreement with our teacher’s association," stated Superintendent Dr. R. Kirk Hamilton. "Our teachers have done a great job, as is reflected in our improved student academic performance over the past several years. Quality staff is key to our continued academic improvement."
SWEA President Rolla Beach explained that, while the members are not completely satisfied with the terms, they are relieved that an agreement has been made.
"I think it would be an exaggeration to say that SWEA membership is happy with this contract especially following the minimal pay increases in the preceding contract," said Beach. "At the same time, the majority of our membership is not prepared to go on strike at this time."
Beach explained that the employees find it difficult to believe that the board could not make a more competitive offer after its "dramatic shift in financial forecasting from one year to the next."
"In just a year’s time, from October of 2006 to October of 2007, they have changed their financial projection for the end of the current fiscal year from a $6 million deficit to a $12 million carryover," said Beach.
Hamilton noted he believes the agreement is sensitive to the district’s financial situation and fair to the community.
Board President Jim Lester added, "State budget cuts and unfavorable school funding legislation, in addition to a weakened local and statewide economy, have had a dramatic effect on our negotiations. As a board, remaining competitive in the central Ohio job market, demonstrating our appreciation for the hard work of our staff, and remaining financially responsible to the community were goals that we strived to achieve."
Beach explained that, during bargaining sessions, the group could not convince the board to "move on the basic financial elements of the package."
SWEA attempted to get the board to agree to pick up half a percent of the members’ STRS pension contribution as an alternative form of compensation in the second year of the contract.
"This approach is of interest to our members because they know the board has been negotiating the STRS pickup with the district’s administrators for years," Beach noted. "The board did not agree to move – even half a percentage point – on the STRS pickup for our members."
Board members maintain that the contract was fair and responsible to the community.
"While it is a difficult balance, we are very happy to have reached an agreement with our teachers and other SWEA members," said Lester. "We know we have some of the finest teachers in the state. We wish we could have offered them more."
Based on the latest round of negotiations, some SWEA members question their future with SWCS.
"We are pleased to have the stability of a contract until June 30, 2009, but we have increasing doubt regarding the competitive position of SWCS," said Beach. "The foundation of a quality school district is its professional talent, and I imagine we will see an acceleration of the recent trend of people – teachers and administrators – leaving the district in order to go to other communities."